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US: Islamic studies

Arab and Islamic studies are booming in the US., and a new generation of scholars is being created thanks largely to the Social Science Research Council, whose journal Items (Spring 2002) has a report on a workshop, held in New Orleans in February 2002, which brought together young scholars working in the field. The symposium, to be continued in the next issue, is entitled "Islam in Situ", presumably meaning that the studies are based on field work, not library research. We have noticed that Sufism, until recently the concern of a few scholars, has suddenly loomed large. For this reason, "From Sufi Practice to Scholarly Praxis: Some Reflections on the Lessons of Fieldwork for the Study of Islam" is of special interest. For a long time we have known of Westerners who have gone to India, fallen under the influence of a guru, and even converted to Hinduism. The Marin County, California youth who went to the Arabian peninsula to study Islam and, after being caught in Afghanistan, is now in a US jail, seemed like an oddity, but there are more converts to Islam than we think. The sufis of Pakistan play an important role in this.The article quotes the son of a London industrialist who converted to Islam in 1937 and traveled throughout the Muslim world in search of spiritual knowledge. He spent the last 30 years of his life in Karachi "immersed in the Sufi path", guiding his own devoted corps of disciples. Quotes are used to indicate that the language, with its mixed metaphor, is not mine. We hear much about the madrassas, the Islamic schools where the children engage in rote learning of the Koran, but the sufi leaders described here are highly intellectual people opposed to the West and its ways who spread their beliefs even by e-mail. I am puzzled by a reference to the orthodoxy of sufi thought, as though it is different from Islamic Orthodoxy, which incidentally is very loose. The word "praxis", used several times, was a favorite of Marxists, but it seems now to have a broader appeal.

Ronald Hilton - 7/19/02